Pelagianism

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Pelagianism - pronounced with the stress on the second syllable, pe-LAY-ji-e-nizm, IPA: /pɛ 'leɪdʒ ɪ ə nɪzəm/ - is the heretical claim that it is possible for human beings to attain salvation entirely through their own efforts without help from God.

The Pelagian heresy takes its name from its author Pelagius (354-420/440), a monk who came originally from somewhere in the British Isles (possibly from Scotland or Ireland) and, after travelling in the Middle East, eventually settled in Rome. His advocacy of a stern, ascetic morality won him many followers.

Pelagius' claim that human beings can attain salvation by their own efforts without the assistance of divine grace has its roots in his relatively optimistic view of human nature, and this in turn is related to his belief that the original sin of the first man Adam has not so corrupted human nature as to make it impossible for human beings, without God's help, to choose good rather than evil. Pelagius agreed that divine grace could sometimes help human beings to act well, but denied that it was an indispensably necessary condition of their doing so.

Pelagius was fiercely opposed by, amongst others, St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430), whose pessimistic view of human nature stands in sharp contrast to that of Pelagius: Augustine, whose views in some respects resemble those held twelve centuries later by the Protestant reformer John Calvin (Jean Chauvin, 1509-1564), insisted that without divine intervention human beings are quite unable to avoid falling into sin.

Pelagius' and Augustine's conflicting positions clearly imply very different views of the relationship between God and human beings. According to Augustine we are completely dependent on God, whereas according to Pelagius we are relatively independent. This difference in outlook is memorably captured in a passage from Peter Brown's fine biography Augustine of Hippo (London: Faber and Faber, 1967), pp. 351-352:

The basic difference between the two men ... is to be found in two radically different views on the relation between man and God. It is summed up succinctly in their choice of language. Augustine had long been fascinated by babies: the extent of their helplessness had grown on him even since he wrote his Confessions; and in the Confessions he had no hesitation in likening his relation to God to that of a baby to its mother's breast, utterly dependent .... The Pelagian, by contrast, was contemptuous of babies. 'There is no more pressing admonition than this, that we should be called sons of God.' To be a 'son' was to become an entirely separate person, no longer dependent on one's father, but capable of following out by one's own power the good deeds that he had commanded ...

Pelagianism was rejected at the Council of Carthage in 418 and condemned as a heresy by the third ecumenical Council of bishops meeting at Ephesus in 431 - though it continued to be influential in southern Italy and Sicily for some decades after this.